The Red Bulls came into the season with one goal in mind: to get the Cup they knew they were more than capable of winning.
New York had to overcome, however, both a streaky regular season last year where they could only manage a 7th place finish while their rivals NYCFC won the Supporter’s Shield, the Red Bulls won the year prior and a home team upset by Philadelphia after holding a 3-1 lead.
They also had to overcome a big name exodus after captain and club legend Luis Robles (Miami), fellow club legend Bradley Wright-Phillips (LAFC), Connor Lade (Retirement), Derrick Etienne (Columbus), Kemar Lawrence (Anderlecht), and Alex Muyl (Nashville SC) all left the team. They had to overcome a mid-season coaching change as Chris Armas was let go in September.
New York also had to navigate what could turn out to be the most unique season in MLS history, and not just because it was its quarter-centurion. A global pandemic, whose numbers seemed to be on exponential growth by the day, stopped the whole season 2 games in, where the Red Bulls got a win at home against Cincinnati and a draw away to Real Salt Lake.
After 4 months and a half a week of soccer thirst unquenched, the MLS announced it was back, and aptly so with a tournament called the MLS is Back Tournament. Unfortunately, New York did not make it out of the group stage, finishing third behind the Ohio clubs.
After that, they failed to reach their goal to avoid another streaky season with a draw and 6 losses in their next 11 games back.
The last loss, 2-1 to Inter Miami, pierced club pride so deep that interim coach Bradley Carnell demanded internal looks and self-reflection and said that the team must respond against Atlanta. Enter 17-year old former Barcelona Academy resident Caden Clark, making his debut after tearing it up with the second team in the USL. He scored off a corner that came out to him outside the box while his team was battling a scoreless deadlock.
Better yet, it turned out to be the only goal of the game and a tone-setter as the Red Bulls used the momentum to fight back in 5 of their next 6 games.
It set a culture where it didn’t matter what minute or situation it was, the Red Bulls weren’t going to let their uniquely talented team and their positive atmosphere get pushed around by anyone or let anyone take the game from them. They were willing to go to the end, to have everyone’s heart on their tongue to make sure they proved their point that they were the better men, thus being aptly called the “Cardiac Kids”.
The last of these wins was a 2-1 win over Toronto which helped them avoid the wild card by points per game. They had extra time to train before their next game against Columbus in which they brought it despite being leaky in the back, but ultimately fell short, 3-2.
It was always going to be a challenge for the club to replace Luis Robles, whose option was declined for this year. It was split between David Jensen and Ryan Meara, but Meara had been an absolute rock since he was drafted in 2012 and has been an absolute champion with patience and fortitude behind Robles.
In his first season as starting keeper in the Red Bulls net, he was top 10 in save percentage while guiding the Red Bulls to the playoffs. Not only that, his leadership between the sticks, attitude, and quality spoke for themselves as they did when he was behind Robles.
Like the keeping, the leadership was always hard to replace when Robles and Wright Phillips left. More fortunately, so many guys stepped up to use their skills and attitude to lead. First and foremost, Homegrown captain Sean Davis, who has always been regarded as a leader here, knows the culture, area, and what it means to be a Red Bull.
Aaron Long has been in the system for 5 seasons and stepped up when the team needed him most in both attack and defense, being a rock in defense with Tim Parker and scoring the only goal against the New England Revolution. Parker has also stepped up with his attitude, defense, and commanding presence; so too has Ryan Meara.
Cristian Casseres, Jr., at just 20, came into the season as the team’s Defensive Player of the Year. In three seasons, he has turned into a key cog in the Red Bulls’ midfield, starting in 20 games tucked in out wide, centrally, and in defensive midfield this year
Omir Fernandez has been a livewire since his debut last year, starting in 15. But the talking point this season, and in the most remarkable fashion since Jozy Altidore, was 17-year old Caden Clark. He burst onto the scene when the team was reeling after their 6th loss in 11 games. he scored the only goal against Atlanta United and then scored next week against Toronto FC to tie it.
And then, as if the message wasn’t clear enough that he was MLS’ next wunderkind, he scored in the playoffs against the Columbus Crew to open the scoring.
After Clark’s winner, the team scored winning or tying goals in late stages against Toronto (Clark, 77′), Orlando (White, 90+2′), Chicago (White, 90+5′), and New England (Long, 89′). In these games, they forged an identity that they were going to defend the metro area’s culture and prove their approach to this game until the end, no matter how much the game’s intensity or its stakes ramped up.
They ramped up to the point of piercing heartbreak in the event of defeat; that is why they were called the Cardiac Kids. These goals also came from players in various positions, including defender Aaron Long, midfielder Caden Clark, and striker and top scorer Brian White.
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